President Barack Obama was briefed March 7 by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen about Mexico’s drug wars and the need for US assistance. “They have an urgent need,” Mullen told reporters in a conference call from his aircraft as he returned from his first official visit to Mexico. “We all have a sense of urgency about this. And so we’re all going to push pretty hard to deliver that capability as rapidly as possible.”
Mullen said tactics used against militant networks in Iraq and Afghanistan need to be employed with US aid in Mexico. “They need intelligence support, capabilities and tactics that have evolved for us in our fight against networks in the terrorist world,” Mullen said. “There are an awful lot of similarities.”
During his meetings with Mexico’s military leadership, Mullen said he discussed how Washington could help in the battle against the cartels, citing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) as a crucial element. “ISR, that kind of capability is certainly a big part of it,” Mullen said, using a term that often refers to the use of unmanned drones. He said the emphasis would be on sharing intelligence “but in recognition that there are additional assets that could be brought to bear across the full ISR spectrum.”
The admiral said he and his Mexican hosts did not discuss the possibility of placing U.S. troops on the U.S.-Mexican border, as called for days earlier by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Mullen also visited Brazil, Peru, Chile and Colombia on his trip. (VOA, March 8; AFP, March 7; Reuters, March 6)
Texas Gov wants troops for border
Gov. Perry said last week that he wants 1,000 troops to police the Texas-Mexico border, and for the federal government to fund new security measures to fight the Mexican drug cartels. “I don’t care if they are military, National Guard or customs agents,” Perry said. “We’re very concerned that the federal government is not funding border security adequately. We must be ready for any contingency.”
He said he would also ask the Texas legislature for $135 million for emergency border security measures. He told a news conference at the Chamizal National Memorial the funds would be used “to go after transnational gangs, for technology and aviation assets.” (El Paso Times, Feb. 25)
President Obama weighed in March 11 on Perry’s proposal March 11, seeming to rule out an immediate role for active-duty army troops—but not the National Guard. “We’re going to examine whether and if National Guard deployments would make sense and under what circumstances they would make sense,” Obama told reporters. “I don’t have a particular tipping point in mind. I think it’s unacceptable if you’ve got drug gangs crossing our borders and killing U.S. citizens.” (McClatchy Newspapers, March 11)
Rep. Lewis: Mexico the new Afghanistan
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, speaking in back-to-back hearings of his committee and the Homeland Security Subcommittee March 10, said the Defense Department must make Mexico as big a priority as Afghanistan. The hearings were held to assess the effectiveness of the 2005 Secure Border Initiative.
“In the other hearing I just came from, I learned that one of our problems is that the Department of Defense somehow puts Afghanistan ahead of the challenges on the Mexican border,” Lewis said. “I used to head that subcommittee, and I’ll tell you that what’s going on with our biggest trading partner in respect to this drug problem, it is our No. 1 challenge.”
“We need to raise this to a higher level,” Lewis told the Homeland Security subcommittee, slamming the DoD for not providing helicopters to patrol the border. “You can’t chase these people around in trucks.”
Officials from Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection bureau defended the success of border security measures. Acting Commissioner Jayson Ahern said 720,000 people were caught last year trying to cross the border illegally, and officials seized 2.8 million tons of narcotics.
Officials said the escalating cartel violence in Mexico is evidence that the US border security plan is working. “They are fighting for territory,” Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said of the drug cartels.
Rep. Culberson invokes 1916 intervention
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) thanked the witnesses, including Aguilar, for their service: He added: “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what all of you do. You truly are in our prayers on a daily basis. You’re on the front lines of an undeclared war unlike any we’ve ever seen on the southern border probably since 1916.”
Elaborating on the 1916 reference, Culberson said: “I think we are at the point today that we need to send the Black Jack Pershing into the Southern United States and put it in command of a true, fast-reaction military force that can move up and down that border on the US side.” Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing led an expedition into Mexico with 10,000 troops to hunt down the Pancho Villa after the famous revolutionary had carried out a raid across the US border.
Added Culberson: “We are in a state of undeclared war on the southern border that has already spilled over [into the US], and it’s utterly unrealistic to think that it hasn’t.”
Rep. Price fears Canadian menace
Rep. David Price (D-NC), who chaired the hearing, said the answer to the border question has already been found in the Del Rio section of Texas where a “zero tolerance” program, dubbed Operation Streamline, has resulted in the arrest of an estimated 80% of those crossing the border illegally. “It’s a great success story.”
Culberson complained that in other areas, enforcement is too lax. “The Tucson sector is a real problem,” he said in comments to Aguilar. “If you are arrested in the Tucson sector, crossing into the United States illegally, carrying less than 500 pounds of marijuana, you have a 99.6% chance of never being prosecuted and never go to jail for more than a few hours, which is a source of great frustration to your border agents, isn’t it chief?” Aguilar responded: “Yes, sir.”
“So, Tucson is wide open,” Culberson said. Aguilar replied: “Tucson is being worked on.” Culberson concluded: “The point is, is that there are wildly different levels of enforcement, the border is wide open in Tucson, we found the solution in Texas, and it’s real simple. It’s law enforcement.”
Congress debates “Plan Mexico” aid
“The instability that has shaken Mexico is on our doorstep,” said Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), decrying that Mexico will have to wait until September for helicopters Congress agreed to send nearly two years ago—eight Bell 412 EPs and three UH-60 Black Hawk transport helicopters.
“It’s absurd,” agreed Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), who chairs the subcommittee controlling funding for the $1.4 billion Mexico aid package dubbed the Mérida Initiative (the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee). “Bodies are being decapitated. People are being killed.”
David Johnson, the top State Department official for drug control, agreed that the helicopters are crucial, and blamed bureaucratic snafus involving the Defense Department. He said delivery would occur as quickly as possible.
Since last fall, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has called publicly for expedited release of resources promised under the Mérida Initiative. Mexico’s share is $400 million over three years, and the Senate this week is considering doubling that. (Dallas Morning News, March 11)
France into the breach
French President Nicolas Sarkozy also visited Mexico this week, where he vowed to supply intelligence-gathering technology and law enforcement training to assist in the war on the cartels. The offer came days after Mexico’s Supreme Court cut the sentence of a Frenchwoman convicted of kidnapping from 96 to 60 years. The sentence was reduced after Florence Cassez was absolved of one of the four kidnappings she was convicted of in 2008.
Cassez’s French lawyer, Franck Berton, still said the trial was not fair and denounced the sentence as “arbitrary.” He called on Sarkozy to pressure the Mexican government. “The cards are now in the hands of the Elysee,” he said, referring to the French presidential palace. “I’m not going to tell him not to go. Let him go, but all I ask is that he bring her back,” he said on France-Info radio.
Cassez was arrested in 2005 in the police raid of a house on the outskirts of Mexico City where three people had been held for more than two months. Among them was an 8-year-old girl. Cassez maintains she is innocent, but at least one victim has identified her as one of her captors. (FSRN, March 10; AP, March 4)